Choosing right the first time
A reader reflects on George DeVault’s “Your first tractor” series and shares his own evolution toward finding the perfect machine for his particular farming needs. 

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July 14, 2005: I just finished George DeVault’s "Your first tractor" Part 1 and Part 2. There is lots of useful information in them and they pretty much follow along with the thinking I applied to my first tractor purchase three years ago. I love our little 1989 Ford 32-horsepower 2810 diesel tractor, but it’s been woefully inadequate for our 45-acre farm in Northwest Ohio, and I’ve had to rethink my needs.

Devault seems to focus on small tractors in his stories. A low-power unit may be adequate, or not, depending upon circumstances. I have 32 tillable acres of Broughton clay, Paulding clay and a bit of Roselms silt loam. I have planted winter wheat and soybeans (so far) conventionally and it takes every one of the Ford’s 32 horses to pull a two-bottom plow though this ground. The tractor works nearly as hard with my other implements. I’ve divided my fields into two parcels: a 20 and a 12. Last fall, it took me 55 hours to work down that 20 and plant it, because the implements my tractor can pull cut such narrow swaths. I don’t mind hard work, but this was an excessively large chunk of my time given that farming is a "paying hobby" and not my primary job.

Not only that, my tractor was working at near 100-percent capacity and using the same amount of fuel a larger tractor working at a lower capacity would use. Yes, I compared fuel usage with a neighbor with a tired 90-horsepower JD that doesn’t run nearly as well as my Ford. Also, working anything at near maximum capacity is not conducive to good longterm service. I’ve already had one major component failure. I’ve considered no-till, but drills small enough for this tractor are virtually unavailable used anywhere close (at least in three years of looking) and cost more new than what I paid for the tractor with many extras.

One trend I have found is that the "useful" smaller tractors, which to me means diesel power, a 3-point hitch and live PTO, turn out to be very expensive horsepower. Not only that, small implements are priced higher per foot than larger ones. I speak mostly of used equipment here, but the trends follow in new stuff as well. I don’t have unlimited funds and want the farming to pay for itself at least, preferably to also pay me burger-flipper wages for my efforts. Attaining that goal is part of the enjoyment for me. My conclusion is that I need a larger tractor... something in the 80-100 horsepower range in a 4x2, or about 70 horsepower in a 4x4. The 4x4s in that range are prohibitively priced for me (and hard to find used around here), but older 4x2s are plentiful and in my preferred $5,000 range for a decent unit. It will likely be a high-hour machine, but considering it will only get 30 hours a year I should be able to make it last a long while. I will also then have the option of going no-till relatively inexpensively, getting a disc-chisel-type plow, a larger cultivator, etc., all of which are available more easily and cheaply used than small tractor implements. The implements I choose will work the larger tractor at about 50- to 60-percent capacity.

Because I have a lot of goodies for the small unit, I will keep it and use it for the everyday stuff that doesn’t require big power, such as chopping, ditching, gravel-road maintenance, snow clearing, hauling firewood, etc. It’s much more fuel efficient in these modes than a larger tractor. The big tractor will sleep until I need it for the hard stuff. I would urge new farmers to think beyond the small tractor when circumstances dictate. Do research on how long the work will take on your acreage with different-size implements and how much horsepower is needed to pull those implements, and factor in some reserve power so you don’t work your tractor to death. It makes sense. Farming for a living requires that you make the most of your time. If you are a hobby farmer like me, that’s equally true, unless you enjoy working every waking minute of every day. Either situation could dictate a larger tractor. A larger tractor may increase the "intimidation factor" of learning to operate farm equipment for the first time, but that’s less costly and onerous than dealing with a poor initial choice and having to upgrade too soon down the road.

Jim Allen